A few days ago Kim and I honored Henry David Thoreau by sauntering around Walden Pond. Blogging about this pilgrimage to Walden smacks a little of sacrilege. I don’t care much for the bound-up boxiness of categories, but if you ask I will likely tell you that I’m an environmental writer who believes in the life-giving qualities that spring from a spiritual attachment to Place. Much about Thoreau’s life speaks deeply to me—his profound connection to Concord, his antislavery activism, his minimalist philosophy, his views on the place of humans in nature. So a short reflection based on a three-hour visit to a place that was his place above all others seems a little, well, shallow. Nevertheless, who knows when the opportunity will come around again, so I’ll wade in, if only up to my ankles.
Walden Pond was carved into granite by a receding glacier and is about 100 feet deep and a half-mile across on its long axis. The water is as clear and blue as were Thoreau’s eyes. Trout slurp insects in the shallows just beyond a narrow sandy beach. My mother-in-law grew up in nearby Belmont and always knew this place as Lake Walden. This now makes sense to me; Walden Pond qualifies as a lake by most standards.
We walked counterclockwise around the pond. A chattering Baltimore Oriole leapt into a lakeside alder, his black hood and orange flanks flashing in late morning sun. Near Thoreau’s Cove we turned away from the water to visit the original home site. Henry David built his house on a rise, perhaps 50 meters back from the north shore. The pond was visible through the trees. His single room cabin was about 150 square feet, with a wood stove at the back and a cot along the side. Today his place would qualify as a “tiny house,” the new minimalist abodes now becoming increasingly popular. The original cabin was torn down long ago and salvaged for lumber. Henry David would have approved of this frugality.
Mixed pine and hardwoods have been growing since the forest was leveled by a hurricane in 1938. The present woodland might look much as Thoreau had known it. He was attracted to the forest around Walden Pond because the surrounding land had been cleared for agriculture, and here the trees remained because soils were too poor for growing food. This year a record setting winter snowfall had given way to an unusually dry spring. Sun filtered through the canopy, throwing spotted bobcat light onto brittle brown leaf litter. Wyman Meadow, a small wetland near the cabin site, was completely dry. Kim and I carried our Oregon aversion to heat and humidity with us to New England, and felt as though all of the moisture that had left the ground was now hanging thickly in the air.
I wonder if Thoreau would have approved of the black and white signs hanging from a two-stranded twisted wire fence: STAY ON TRAILS: Restoration Zone. I found the signs ironic because in my imagination he was a free spirit, sauntering through the woods unencumbered by authority. In 1845 he might have greeted these signs with disdain. But inferences without historical context are speculative at best. I suspect that if Henry David were an old man today, the current popularity of his once quiet refuge would make him sad. I think he would feel this way because I have felt this way; many of my favorite getaways are no longer places to get away. Yet I can imagine Henry David advising today’s Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and can see him shrug in resignation about the fences and signs, recognizing that sometimes the land needs help.
Kim and I found a sanctioned opening in the fence and made our way down a short stairway of granite slabs, stepping out onto the well-packed sandy shore. A Chipping Sparrow belted out a drawn-out chatter from atop a pine at water’s edge. We sauntered along the shore. Is there a difference between a saunter and an amble? Since we were in Thoreau’s place, I’m certain we were sauntering. There was a small amount of trash along the way—plastic water bottles, wrapper bits, and a red and white Marlboro cigarette box. We picked up the junk and stuffed it in an outside pocket of Kim’s backpack. Eventually the garbage provided it’s own receptacle—a cast off ziplock bag. An abandoned bait container still had a worm in it, barely alive, and I performed what I hoped was a mercy killing, chucking the worm into the water for the trout. This amounted to an introduced species feeding another introduced species to yet another introduced species, a food web of invasive animals. So be it.
The midday warmth and humidity had a soporific effect that drew us around the north shore, back toward the parking lot. Passing a monofilament line recycling station, I decided to leave a tangle of line we had removed from a stick. A small nest of hornets dangled from the top of the tube-like receptacle, and I wondered how many people would deposit their used line as long as the nest was there. I took my chances and quickly stuffed in the line. That’s just how I’m wired.
We finished up in the small gift shop full of books covering all things Thoreauvian. I continued to saunter in my mind and concocted a phony multiple-choice question. What would Henry David think of all this? Would he be a) horrified at the excess, b) stupefied at some interpretations of his life, or c) gratified that his ideas have persisted and found such a wide audience? I choose “c,” gratitude. Mark me wrong if you like, but that's how I feel.